“If personal identity is not simply reducible to familial relations, it nevertheless is substantially rooted in them. If we are to ‘see’ or to ‘know’ the new marriage and the new family, the fleshly one must make its contribution precisely in its visibility.”
1. New problems
In convoking the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII begins with an assessment of the Church’s situation in the modern world: Today the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel, a world which exalts itself with its conquests in the technical and scientific fields, but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganize excluding God. This is why modern society is earmarked by a great material progress to which there is not a corresponding advance in the moral field.1
The document goes on to speak of a replacement of “values of the spirit” with “earthly pleasures” made possible by a modern technocratic culture. In particular, the opening paragraphs express grave concern for a “completely new and disconcerting fact: the existence of a militant atheism which is active on a world level.”2 Striking here is the sense that modernity presents new problems for the Church and these new problems will require deep reflection on the part of her faithful.
Nevertheless, the document’s assessment is not entirely negative. The very bitter experiences of the first half of the twentieth century had spurred people to ponder the place of the human person in such a world. Such developments as the lost sense of reality’s depth and meaningfulness, the increasing influence of extreme political ideologies, the experience of the ultra-violent political regimes, the hopelessness hidden just behind the multiplication of pleasures, all initiated a counter desire for genuine reflection. In other words, if the council was born in a desire to engage the modern world, this desire was itself aware of and a response to the particular problems and dangers as well as the opportunities presented by modernity. The new problems and opportunities presented by modernity would require a fresh engagement. This theme runs throughout the council documents.
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1. Humanae salutis (25 December 1961), in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbott, S.J. (New York: Corpus Books, 1966), 703–09; 703. This article was originally offered as a paper at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the convocation of the council in Humanae salutis: “‘Keeping the World Awake to God’: The Challenge of Vatican II,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 12–14 January 2012.
2. Ibid., at 703–04.